The portfolio of renewable energy options is slowly expanding, with wave energy moving towards commercial viability following a series of successful test projects based on new technology in the field.
“Although this sector started its real development a fair time after wind and solar, its rate of maturity is much greater due to advances in IT and computational capabilities,” says Ali Baghaei, chief executive officer of Oceanlinx, the company that has developed the new technology.
“Now things are moving pretty quickly and the pace is going to become even faster.”
The technology is known as the oscillating water column system. It might be compared to an artificial blowhole in which sea water is forced into a funnel by its own energy, creating a rush of air which turns a bi-directional turbine.
As the water sweeps back, the air pressure differential turns the turbine again.
“One of the key elements of this is that we get energy generated by the wave going both in and out,” Baghaei says. “That, plus the fact that the turbine is turned by air pressure rather than water, provides much greater efficiency and durability than other wave energy systems.”
Oceanlinx is now working on a facility known as the 1MW Commercial Wave Energy Demonstrator, which will be located 4 kilometres off the South Australian coast, not far from Port MacDonnell.
The facility, which will connect to the national electricity grid, builds on the knowledge gained from a series of pilot projects at Port Kembla, NSW.
The device itself is a rigid concrete structure which is placed on the sea floor.
It will sit in 10 metres of water with two-thirds of its structure submerged.
The facility is designed to deliver 25 years of continuous operation and to survive one-in-100-years storms. Significantly, it can be fabricated with off-the-shelf parts.
“We learned a great deal from the Port Kembla projects, both about the technology and about issues such as scalability and grid connection,” Baghaei says.
“As a result, the Port MacDonnell project is currently completing the preparation work.
“We anticipate final installation by this time next year and grid connection by the end of 2013. We will reach full capacity by March 2014. As energy projects go, that’s a pretty good timeline.”
Operating at full capacity, the project will be able to generate more than 2.5 gigawatt hours of electricity a year with zero emissions.
The facility will be monitored closely throughout its first year of operation. After that, it will be unmanned, with the only costs involved being maintenance.
According to Baghaei, a key advantage of this type of wave energy is its reliability. Where wind and solar energy supply is necessarily volatile, wave energy can be predicted several days in advance, meaning it can be used for base-load power when utilised in an appropriate mix of energy generation sources.
“The southern coast of Australia and parts of Western Australia are some of the best territories in the world for wave energy,” Baghaei says.
“What you want is a place with the continuous and consistent swells associated with open ocean, but fairly close to shore.
“The technology can be used in either shallow water, such as Port MacDonnell, or deep water. It also has potential for desalination and for direct use by offshore facilities such as oil rigs.
“The platform itself has a small visual profile, with no contaminants on board and no moving parts under water, so there are no concerns on the environmental front.”
Oceanlinx recently received a grant of just under $4 million from the Emerging Renewables Program, which will be about half of the capital expenditure for the Port MacDonnell project.
“We see that as a substantial vote of faith in the technology,” Baghaei says.
“Once the Port MacDonnell project is demonstrated successfully, a small array is predicted to produce power for 15¢ per kilowatt hour, much better than any other wave energy options and not far from the onshore wind cost of around 10¢ per KWh.
“Once we’re over the initial capital outlay, the costs should go down even further and put us in the range of fossil fuel costs, especially if we can start building arrays of 50MW or larger rather than stand-alone facilities.”
Baghaei believes wave energy could provide up to 10 per cent of Australia’s total electricity needs before 2050, and much earlier if the grid infrastructure can be provided.
He envisages Oceanlinx moving out of the operational side after the early demonstration projects are complete, generating revenue through licensing arrangements and project development.
The focus will be on continually improving the technology.
“There is huge potential here,” he says. “After the pilot projects, we know that it works, can be scaled and is cost-effective. That’s what makes a viable industry.”
The Australian Financial Review